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I am working this week at Yale’s Center for British Art  and of course I could not skip a visit to the Beinecke Library (please don’t let them know that I played hooky). One of the very few buildings from the 1960s that does not demand profuse apologies, the Library is an enormous box of translucent stone.  Within it one gets a visceral feel for the peculiar specialness of the printed page.
It takes a space like this to contain and indeed dwarf the two Audubon folios on display – each is about a meter tall.  And that brings us to one of the distinctive properties of photography clearly recognised by Talbot but largely overlooked today.

 

It is so often assumed that Talbot’s copies of engravings are early (and boring) experiments in contact printing  that it might come as something of a surprise that many of these were produced in the camera.

 

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The “large Italian print” that Talbot copied was an 1829 Rossini engraving of a Roman arch in Cora, measuring about 48 x 41cm. It has been reduced to about a third of that height – less than fifteen percent of its original area – all the time retaining not only the precision the line but also the character of the original.

 

In The Pencil of Nature, writing about the “Copy of a Lithographic Print,” Talbot observed that “all kinds of engravings may be copied by photographic means; and this application of the art is a very important one, not only as producing in general nearly fac-simile copies, but because it enables us at pleasure to alter the scale, and to make the copies as much larger or smaller than the originals as we may desire.  The old method of altering the size of a design by means of a pantagraph or some similar contrivance, was very tedious, and must have required the instrument to be well constructed and kept in very excellent order: whereas the photographic copies become larger or smaller, merely by placing the originals nearer to or farther from the Camera.  The present plate is an example of this useful application of the art, being a copy greatly diminished in size, yet preserving all the proportions of the original.”

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Commenting on another Pencil of Nature plate, a reduction of a Boilly lithograph, the Athenæum found the copy to be “very pleasing evidence of the correctness with which the details of an engraving, and consequently of a manuscript, may be copied with the camera.  In the group of heads from this French caricature, we have the most delicate lines copied with surprising strength, and the decision with which the whole is made out is really extraordinary, when all the details of the process are considered.”  The Literary Gazette felt that “the reduction of a well-known popular French caricature … affords another proof of the diversity of uses to which photography can be put.”  Lady Elisabeth Feilding was as perceptive as always when in the process of criticising her son’s choice made the astute observation about copies of other artists’ works “because of course they copy exactly all the inaccuracies & the great merit of this invention is its extreme accuracy, & truth to Nature.”

Nicolaas Henneman printed up a label for copies of this print intended for sale:  “Copy of an Italian Engraving, much diminished in size.”

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Finally, a couple of quick photographic observations.  I’ve left the borders on this print to remind us once again of the hand made nature of each Talbot print and negative – each is unique and each has a direct physical link back to its creator.  And just like Talbot was surprised to discover things in his photographs that went beyond what he observed on the scene, I unintentionally did an impressionistic selfie in the Beinecke.  Which renews my hope that we will identify similar Henry Talbot self-portraits in his own work.

 

Larry J Schaaf

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• Questions or Comments? Please contact Prof Schaaf directly at larry.schaaf@bodleian.ox.ac.uk  • WHFT, “Copy of a Large Italian Print, Reduced in the Camera,” salt print from a calotype negative, prior to 23 January 1844.  The Harry Ransom Humanities Research Center, The University of Texas at Austin, 964:054:021; Schaaf 778.  The original is titled “Veduta dell’ antico Ponte siuato fuori di Porta Romana nella Citta di Cora, costruito da Cora moi tempi di Claudio”  “l’Altezza totale e di circa 110 palmi; d’apres nature.” In Luigi Rossini, Le Antichità Romane (Rome: Scudellari, 1829).  • Athenæum, no. 904, 22 February 1845, p. 202.   The Literary Gazette, n 1463, 1 February 1845, p. 73.   Elisabeth Feilding to WHFT, 6 January 1845; Talbot Correspondence Document no.  05150. • Copy of Rossini in the Sterling Library, Yale University – precision measuring instrument courtesy of Ikea.